Plastic bags are great – don’t ban them

It’s generally a good rule of thumb to oppose anything that’s favoured by the Daily Mail, assuming you have the slightest interest in economics or liberty, even if it doesn’t obviously sound like a bad idea. Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy would’ve done well to follow the rule:

In one stroke the Daily Mail has put [banning plastic supermarket bags] back on the political agenda and for that it must be applauded. The question is, will politicians heed?

Why is Sunny wrong? Well, plastic supermarket bags, while they make for oh-so-sad photostories of suffering seagulls, cause next to no net environmental damage. The government-funded Waste Resources Action Programme has said that because they are generally re-used as rubbish/storage bags, and because they are less environmentally costly to make than paper bags, they are the greenest current alternative.

It gets worse. Plastic bags are of the most use to people who’re shopping on foot or by public transport; if you’re going by car you can keep your shopping in boxes, or keep a selection of Bags For Life in your boot.

But if your shopping is done as part of a public transport commute [work -> shop -> home], which is the least environmentally damaging way to do it, then you’ve got a problem if plastic bags are banned: paper bags aren’t much use for holding things for more than the distance from checkout to car, which is why they’re popular in America, and carrying a Bag For Life wherever you go on the off-chance you might want to do some shopping at some point is hardly practical.

If you want to impose a tax on shopping that helps the environment, then tax supermarkets £5 for every car that parks in their car parks – giving them the choice of whether or not to pass it on to the consumer, of course. If you want to drive people off public transport and into their cars, while also increasing emissions associated with bag production (but saving a couple of cute animals – so that makes it all worthwhile), then support the plastic bag tax…

12 thoughts on “Plastic bags are great – don’t ban them”

  1. I am sure I read somewhere that they are made from a "waste" product of oil refineries and if the waste wasn't used on plastic bags it would have to be disposed of somehow, so in that respect plastic bags are fairly neutral.

    My objection is the amount left lying around as litter. Perhaps some for of tax to encourage people to dispose of the sensibly would help.

  2. You make some good points about the Mail and of course a full ban would be insane, however I do much prefer the Irish solution of a tax on new bags thus encouraging their re-use.

    You also highlight the cost of production of paper bags over plastic, which is fair, but ignore the efficacy of cloth/canvas bags, we have several now, they fold easily, are easily stored and can be carried effectively, re-used perpetually.

    "if your shopping is done as part of a public transport commute [work -> shop -> home] … you’ve got a problem if plastic bags are banned … carrying a Bag For Life wherever you go on the off-chance you might want to do some shopping at some point is hardly practical."

    Why not? I used to do it when I worked in Westminster—I had a shoulder bag that I carried my book, any sandwiches I needed and a few other essentials, plus a few bags. I'd regularly stop off at Wimbledon Sainsburys, do my shop then get the bus back to Raynes Park, never caused me a problem and carrying a bunch of foldable bags in a small shoulder bag is hardly an inconvenience.

    Echoing Jennie's comment on Sunny's post, she regularly takes shopping bags to work and goes into the shops on the way home, despite us now living barely ten minutes walk from two major supermarkets and a decent high st.

    The Mail calls for a ban because the Mail likes to ban things, but a decent bag tax would keep them as an available option but substantially reduce their use in favour of reusable alternatives.

    There is of course no reason why parking places cannot also be taxed, n'est ce pas?

  3. "Plastic supermarket bags…make for oh-so-sad photostories of suffering seagulls."

    Even then, when you've been robbed of your ice cream by a seagull in St Ives they lose your sympathy a bit. Death-by-carrier-bag is too good for them.

  4. The government should force one of the many so-called unemployeds to follow me home with my purchases in a box, then toddle off back to the supermarket, with box, when they've finished unpacking them? If they were particularly good, I might even choose to pay them a few pence.

  5. Firstly, in response to The Great Simpleton's point that plastic bags are manufactured from refinery "waste" that would otherwise be unused, would you care to provide a reference for that? Because, no offense, but it sounds like nonsense to me. Almost all plastic bags are manufactured from polyethylene. Not only does polyethylene have a wide range of alternative uses, but the compounds used to produce it; ethylene and benzaldehyde; also have a wide range of alternate uses.

    With reference to the wider issue addressed by John's post, there's no point in me tackling it when it has already been done so well by Merrick, at U-Know!

    I think the point is succinctly expressed by this paragraph…
    The continued overconsumption of plastic bags is squandering vast quantities of the oil from which they’re made, it is polluting land and waterways for millennia to come, killing huge number of birds, fish and other wildlife, and all for no good reason whatsoever. There is no real benefit to using new bags. Taking bags with you is not heavy, bulky, complicated, difficult or cumbersome. There is simply no need to get new bags every time. If we can't get our heads round something as effort-free and obviously beneficial as this, what chance of getting our heads round the things that will take some real sacrifice?

  6. "If you want to impose a tax on shopping that helps the environment, then tax supermarkets £5 for every car that parks in their car parks"

    Shh…. Gordy might be listening.

  7. I'm glad someone else is making the point about people who don't drive to the supermarket. Drivers can just wheel their trolley to the boot and transfer the goods into boxes. No bags needed. Cars are surely much more damaging than bags.

    As of this week, I'm carrying two "bags for life" in my bag each day I know I'm going to the supermarket, but safe in the knowledge I can always take a disposable bag if I need to carry more, or if I need to shop unexpectedly. I have half a kitchen cupboard packed full of disposable bags which will take a long time to use up. But I'll be very annoyed if they are banned at just the moment my supply runs out. I have to add that the disposable bags were often in holes by the time I got home – partly the reason I'm stopping using them.

    Tesco have a good scheme whereby they give clubcard points to people who re-use their bags. Other supermarkets should consider this. However, my local Tesco is about a 10-minute walk from where I live, on an estate where lots of other people live. There is a nice foot/cycle path leading to it, yet I don't see many people use it. The car park is often full. Why can't they introduce a green clubcard scheme for people who don't come by car? Perhaps the logical solution is to charge drivers 20p per disposable bag, but to offer them free to people on foot.

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